The playoffs are upon us and with that comes the end of the 2012 fantasy football season.
We’ve seen some of the greatest single-season performances in league history by players like Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson. Of course, we’ve also known that those two are elite talents for years.
There were also some huge performances from players we didn’t expect them from this season. Some were young and just making their first appearance in the NFL while others finally decided to show up on the fantasy radar after years in the league.
Each year, these breakout stars seem to find themselves on championship fantasy squads. It makes sense. While others were struggling to fill roster spots after injuries or just due to disappointments, those who had elite fantasy production from a late-round draft pick or waiver-wire pickup were laughing all the way to the bank.
Superstar performances from superstar players are always something we love to see, but it’s those breakout stars who truly make us smile. These are the top-12 biggest breakout fantasy stars of the 2012 season.
One of the most unexpected breakout performers of 2012 has to be San Diego Chargers wide receiver Danario Alexander. The receiver spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons wasting away in St. Louis.
The Rams did not elect to keep Alexander going into 2012 and he ended up spending the first seven weeks of the regular season as a free agent. It wasn’t until Week 8 that the San Diego Chargers, who had seen very minimal production from their wide receivers, made a desperation move to sign him.
Alexander would spend the final 10 weeks of the season putting up big-time fantasy production despite having little to no rapport with quarterback Philip Rivers or the rest of the offense.
If you remove the Week 9 game when Alexander barely played and didn’t catch a pass against the Cleveland Browns, he averaged 73.1 yards and .77 touchdowns per game over the final nine games of the season.
If you average those numbers out over a 16-game span, Alexander would have finished the year as the No. 6 fantasy wide receiver in the entire league.
Running back Trent Richardson was widely viewed as the most relevant rookie for fantasy football in 2012. Although he was drafted to one of the league’s least productive offenses, Richardson did his fantasy owners proud by finishing as the 11th-highest scoring running back in standard scoring leagues.
Richardson’s value was even better in PPR leagues as the rookie caught 51 passes, leading all Cleveland Browns in that category. It was his production near the goal line that gave Richardson most of his fantasy value, though, as he scored 12 touchdowns on the year.
Although his 3.6 yards per carry average on the season is a bit underwhelming, Richardson should be viewed as one of the premier backs in the league going forward. He is one of only a few players in the league who is a true “workhorse” back for his team, so his value should only continue to rise from here.
The oldest player on this year’s list is tight end Heath Miller, who had a surprising breakout season in his eighth year as a pro.
Miller was drafted as the No. 18 player at his position coming into the season, but shot all the way up to the No. 4 tight end in the league by the end of the year. His 101 receptions, 816 yards and eight touchdowns were all career highs.
Lack of production from the Pittsburgh running game combined with relatively quiet seasons from both Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace helped contribute to Miller’s year, a feat we do not expect him to repeat in 2013.
Second-year receiver Randall Cobb started to become a hot “sleeper” name for fantasy rosters right before the 2012 season began. As it turned out, those predictions were right on.
With Greg Jennings missing most of the regular season due to injury, Cobb stepped in as a valuable asset in the Green Bay passing game. He led all Packers players with 80 receptions in 2012. His 954 yards were also best on the team and he settled in nicely as Aaron Rodgers’ go-to target between the 20-yard lines.
In addition to his production as a receiver, Cobb remained the team’s primary return man, bringing his total to 2,342 all-purpose yards in 2012.
With the chances of Jennings returning next season looking slim, look for Cobb to continue to establish himself as one of the league’s best weapons in 2013.
Pop quiz: Who led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2012?
Randall Cobb wasn’t the only player who broke out on the Packers’ high-powered offense. With Greg Jennings out and Jordy Nelson also missing a few games due to injury, Cobb’s fellow receiver James Jones broke out as an elite fantasy contributor in 2012.
Jones’ production didn’t come on as strong in PPR or yardage-focused leagues, but for those in touchdown-heavy leagues, Jones came through in a way that we could have never expected.
Pop quiz answer: James Jones led all NFL players with 14 touchdown receptions on his way to his best career season in receptions, yardage and touchdowns.
Being a running back in the pass-happy New England Patriots' offense isn’t exactly the world’s easiest job. But for second-year back Steven Ridley, it was an opportunity that he couldn’t let pass.
Ridley rushed for just 441 yards and a touchdown during his rookie campaign, but became the most prominent ball-carrier for the Patriots in 2012 as he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, numbers which helped make him the No. 8 highest scoring running back this season.
Ridley’s value was hampered in PPR leagues as he caught just six passes all season. Those who took a chance on him in the mid-rounds of their drafts going into the year won’t be complaining about the kind of production he gave them throughout the season.
If anyone benefited most from the addition of Peyton Manning into the Denver Broncos' offense, it was probably Eric Decker. He shattered his career bests in receptions, yardage and touchdowns.
Decker’s 13 touchdowns led all Broncos this year and placed him second in the entire league in that category. Decker’s work with Manning during the offseason clearly paid dividends as the two of them developed chemistry that improved throughout the season.
Best yet, Decker was one of the league’s best playoff fantasy performers as he caught 20 receptions for 274 yards and five touchdowns during the final three weeks of the regular season.
Drafted as the 100th overall player in standard fantasy football league formats, Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller wasn’t even the top-drafted running back on his own team.
A Week 1 injury to Fred Jackson opened the door for Spiller to become one of the biggest breakout fantasy stars of the season.
In his first opportunity to control the touches in the Buffalo backfield, Spiller took 16 carries for 194 total yards and a touchdown. He followed it up with an even better Week 2 when he galloped for 170 total yards and two scores.
Even when Jackson returned, Spiller remained the primary ball carrier in the Buffalo backfield, taking a total of 207 rushing attempts for 1,244 yards and six touchdowns. His 6.0 yards per carry average tied him for best in the league (with Adrian Peterson) among running backs in the league who had 40-plus attempts.
Mike Shanahan offenses are notorious for unpredictable and sometimes flat-out irrational moves, particularly at the running back position. Going into the year, almost everyone believed that the Washington Redskins backfield was Roy Helu’s to lose.
If it wasn’t Helu’s, then the next in line would naturally be second-year back Evan Royster, who rushed for nearly 6.0 yards per carry in 2011.
Boy, were we wrong.
Instead it was a sixth-round pick in last April’s draft by the name of Alfred Morris who took the ball and ran with it—literally—to the tune of 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns before the year was over.
Morris was particularly dominant down the stretch, too. During the final six games of the regular season, he averaged 124 yards on the ground per game, adding eight scores, to cap off a tremendous rookie campaign.
Never would we have imagined that Morris would lead all rookie running backs in rushing, but here we are. Even given Shanahan’s history of replacing running backs for no apparent reason, Morris appears to be pretty safe in a suddenly high-powered Redskins offense.
After two injury-riddled, inconsistent seasons at wide receiver, former first-round pick Demaryius Thomas was beginning to look like a bit of a flop. Sure, he showed signs at times of being the physical, game-breaking receiver that the Broncos drafted him to be, but the ups and downs were almost unbearable.
Enter Peyton Manning.
After spending his first two seasons with the likes of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing him the ball, Thomas finally had the opportunity to work with a top-level quarterback. And boy did he shine.
Thomas nearly tripled his career best numbers in receptions, yardage and touchdowns in 2012, skyrocketing him to the fifth-highest scoring fantasy wide receiver on the year.
Like Alfred Morris before him, Doug Martin is a rookie running back who burst onto the scene in 2012 in tremendous fashion.
Martin finished as the No. 3 highest scoring fantasy running back of the 2012 season as he compiled an amazing 1,926 total yards and 12 touchdowns in a Tampa Bay offense that struggled at times.
Not only was he a breakout star, but Martin actually has the distinct honor of giving fantasy owners the biggest single-game fantasy day of the season. In Week 9, Martin destroyed the Oakland Raiders to the tune of 272 total yards and four touchdowns, giving him a 51 point fantasy day in standard scoring leagues.
Martin’s production as a runner was excellent but he was equally good as a receiver, catching 49 passes for 472 yards and a score on the year.
Going forward, one has to expect that Martin will remain the focal point of the Buccaneers offense, which could mean that more seasons like this are yet to come.
What can we say about Robert Griffin III that hasn’t already been said about his tremendous rookie campaign?
Griffin is the kind of player that fantasy owners dream about. With the ability to both run the ball and pass with tremendous success, Griffin is also a defense’s worst nightmare. In his rookie season, he shined in a way that few believed was possible.
The Redskins’ offense wasn’t exactly overflowing with elite talent at the receiver position going into the year, but when Pierre Garcon went down with an injury in Week 1 and missed a big chunk of the season, the weak got even weaker.
Still, even with one of the least talented receiving corps in the league, Griffin shined, throwing 20 touchdowns on the year to only five interceptions. His rushing totals were even better as he scrambled for 826 yards and seven more scores.
A year after Cam Newton’s monstrous season, Griffin proved again that mobile quarterbacks are the wave of the future. If Washington adds another high-quality receiver in free agency, there’s no reason to believe that Griffin couldn’t find himself as the highest scoring player in the entire league next season.